Durant native Walter Cooper got his start as a performing musician at the age of nine. After a few years following the Mississippi bluesman tradition of starting out on homemade one-string diddly bows, he got a guitar from the local Western Auto Store and was soon asked to perform in his grandmother’s church. St. Allison’s Church of God in Christ had no other musicians, but Cooper picked up quickly, playing along behind the minister.
News of this young church guitarist spread and at the age of eleven, Cooper was asked to play with the Gospel Crusaders, a gospel quartet based in Durant. His mother gave her blessing, and Cooper was soon playing at churches throughout the region with the Crusaders. The group also had a weekly live radio show on a station in Lexington, Mississippi. During this time, Cooper first met Lonnie Pitchford, another young guitarist who played with a gospel group based in Lexington. At the time, he saw Pitchford as competition, but he would later play with the future blues star on a regular basis.
Cooper continued to play with the group for several years and in 1974, they were asked to record for Malaco Records in Jackson. The group recorded two of their own songs for a single on Malaco, “Jesus Never Fails” b/w “Christ is All” (the group recorded the songs immediately after soul singer Dorothy Moore had completed a session). The record sold well enough for Malaco to offer the group a recording contract. While the label was at the time one of the larger gospel labels in the country, the members of the Gospel Crusaders were unsatisfied with the amount of royalties they would be paid on each record sold and declined the contract. Soon after the group disbanded.
Cooper then moved to Jackson and played professionally with several different gospel groups. After five years on the gospel circuit and little to show for his efforts, he quit music and returned to Durant. He married, started a family, got a job at a local factory, and put his guitar into storage.
During this period Cooper joined the National Guard and again met up with Lonnie Pitchford, his formal childhood musical rival. He and Pitchford first played together during a weeklong Guard exercise at Camp Shelby and were soon playing together at local juke joints around Holmes County and at friend’s houses on a regular basis.
Cooper soon switched from factory work to long-distance truck driving and his time to perform became more limited. During this time, Pitchford began to get notice for his talents, recording for Rooster Blues Records in Clarksdale and performing throughout the United States and in Europe. Cooper never recorded with Pitchford, but he was able to play in the guitarist’s band for some local and regional dates.
Since Pitchford’s death in November 1998, Cooper has begun leading his own blues band. He continues to drive a truck but works to keep the memory of his friend’s music alive through performing several songs that Pitchford was known for, including “C. C. Rider.” He also performs with several different gospel choirs and quartets in Holmes County.